Huineng was the Sixth Chinese Patriarch of Zen Buddhism. All of the Ch’an/Zen Buddhism in the world comes to us from him.
Huineng’s teachings are unique for several reasons. First of all, he was an uneducated commoner. His example proves that it’s not only the wealthy and successful who can walk the path.
It doesn’t matter what kind of environment we come from, we all have the potential for Enlightenment. His lack of education might have even been of benefit to him, as he wasn’t distracted by too much knowledge of the world, so he was essentially a blank slate when he came to the Dharma. He didn’t have a lot of preconceptions.
Also, he taught something called Sudden Enlightenment. Teachers that had come before him had taught the doctrine of Gradual Enlightenment, that we slowly accumulate the right amount of karma over multiple lifetimes in order to attain Enlightenment.
Huineng didn’t necessarily criticize that method, but he said that we can attain Enlightenment suddenly as well. All it takes is seeing through our delusions and that can come in a single moment of awareness of the Empty Mind Ground. It just takes a moment for the delusion to drop away and our true selves (or lack thereof) to manifest.
It’s also significant that at the time he received Dharma Transmission he was a layman. He openly taught that lay practice is equal to monastic practice, that being in a monastery is not superior to being out in the world. He was given the name “Hui Neng” when he was born and he didn’t change it, even when he later became a monk. This tells us that he probably didn’t attach much importance to such distinctions, at least not as much importance as others in his time.
And, possibly most significant of all, he enabled the spread of the Dharma by transmitting to more than one of his students. Spreading it collectively in this way was a truly revolutionary idea. Prior to Huineng it had just passed from one teacher to one student and this was a very conservative way of doing this that didn’t necessarily spread the Dharma very well. With this decision, he changed everything. He was truly a revolutionary and important figure.
Author: Daniel Scharpenburg
Editor: Travis May